Crouching Leader, Hidden Agenda: 10 Signs Your Boss Is A Toxic Egomaniac

January 15, 2015 • 8 minute read • by Saeed


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

– Lao Tzu – 

IF YOU HATE YOUR BOSS YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

65% of Americans feel the same way.

A venomous boss will likely jeopardize your career growth and impact your personal life. A study conducted by Baylor University, calls this the “spillover effect,” meaning your work -life also affects your marriage and other intimate relationships.

To be sure, good leadership is hard to find (and harder than it looks). A good manager will help you thrive and bring out the best in you. Conversely, bad bosses can cause more damage than economic downturns, organizational upheavals, or global business shifts combined. In a 2007 study, Bennet Tepper, professor of management and human resources at Ohio State, found that nearly 14% of US workers are subject to abusive superiors. Because of the damage mean bosses inflict on workers’ self esteem and productivity levels, Tepper estimates that abusive supervision costs  companies $23.8 billion a year.

It’s important to identify the signs of an emerging messianic leader early on, before you get too involved (especially if you spot them during the job interview) because your boss will eventually crush all happiness you may be clinging to and short-circuit your career prospects.

To help you recognize and buffer yourself from these Leviathans, here are 10 signs that your boss is a toxic egomaniac:

  1. They have XL signatures: A study by a business school at the University of North Carolina analyzed the signatures of more than 600 American CEOs and found that the bigger the CEO’s signature, the more likely they’ll have an extremely high opinion of themselves. According to the study, oversized signatures are a sign of over-bloated egos and narcissism, and guess what… narcissists tend to be appalling decision-makers and managers. So, your boss could quite literally be signing your career away. For the record, the CEO with the largest signature in the study was Timothy Koogle, who ran Yahoo from 1995 to 2001.
  2. They don’t know when to quit: Managers that are there every day before their staff arrives and are the last ones to leave have a problem and need to get a life. There is a way to be productive and it’s not through burning yourself and your staff out. They either don’t know how to manage their own time or how to delegate effectively.
  3. They take credit for your work: A good manager is concerned with developing the people who work for them. They encourage people to develop their strengths. They offer training and professional development and constructive feedback (vs. criticism). They provide big picture input so that their employees understand the company as a whole, not just their piece of it. They bring them along and set them up for success. They stand alongside their employees rather than upon their shoulders.
  4. They are all about their own power: Bad bosses are on a power trip. They flaunt their title, act like they’re above it all, remain distant from the rank and file and cannot side step their own egos. Their power-centered authoritarian leadership style is the antithesis of what Robert K. Greenleaf coined as “servant leadership’ – those leaders that focus primarily on the growth and well-being of the people and communities to which they belong and serve rather than their own Selves.
  5. They don’t know how to empower: Rather than encourage and support their employees towards higher levels of performance, toxic bosses attempt to shame, blame and humiliate their employees into submission. In his provocatively titled book The No Asshole Rule, Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton, advocates for companies to establish a rule to screen out toxic bosses and bullying behavior which impact morale and productivity. Two tests are specified for recognition of the asshole:
  • After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?
  • Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her?
  1. They have a hidden agenda: In a nutshell, the toxic boss has an objective to meet at your expense. If you find yourself not invited to important meetings you are qualified to attend, given performance reviews that seem out of whack, given feedback that is incongruent with your actual performance, or constantly having to read between the lines, there is likely a hidden agenda at play.
  2. They rule through manipulation: The archetypal manipulative personality is the narcissist (see: #1). Sitting nicely alongside the narcissist is the martyr, the passive-aggressive, the paranoid, the insecure and the control freak. Through their shrewd machinations, these personality types convince you to give up something of yourself in order to serve their self-centered interests. They need to advance their own purposes and personal gain at virtually any cost to others.
  3. They are all or nothing: Egomaniac bosses view challenges to their reign as akin to treason. You are either with them or against them. Unless you stroke their ego 24/7, you are the enemy. They demand blind loyalty and allegiance to their vision and they meet defectors from that vision with swift punishment.
  4. They are often charming: It is common for toxic traits to be hidden behind a mask of charisma. Toxic leaders are actors playing a role to overshadow their personal shortcomings. In fact, since toxic leaders often lack substance, their charisma and fear mongering is likely what has propelled them forward in their career . This points to a more disturbing trend within organizations:  as long as they are achieving results, we ignore the methods by which those results were achieved.
  5. They divide in order to conquer: Operating on the premise that competition fuels productivity, toxic bosses pit individuals and teams against each other creating seething swamps of resentment and back-stabbing. Nice! On the other hand, experienced managers discourage internal competition in favor of external competition. They encourage employees to channel their rivalry towards the competition rather than at each other. Poisonous leaders create divisions amongst their employees and sap their strength and creativity.

Detox or Depart?

If you have a toxic boss, you have to first decide: should I stay or should I go? Sometimes, leaving is the best option. If leaving is not an option, you have to learn to communicate assertively and set clear boundaries. Remember  that you have the right to be treated with respect. You have the right to express your feelings, opinions and wants. You have the right to set your own priorities and to say “no” without feeling guilty. You have the right to have opinions different than others and most importantly, you have the right to protect yourself from physical, mental or emotional harm.

There is good news in all of this. Companies are catching on to the high price of their bad hires and they are getting better at screening out these poisonous personality types. Remember Timothy Koogle with the oversized signature who ran Yahoo from 1995 to 2001? It appears he has not held a meaningful job since then.

Good Luck.

©2014 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

2 comments

  1. Thank you! And for the record I left my last job! And now with my current job I have both good leaders and bad bosses. Good I can now notice the difference between them!

  2. Holy cow this is what I’ve been dealing with for the past 4 years in the military, I’ve been trying to get orders but to no avail. At this point I fear this guy will permanently damage my career. The article is great but if you have any tips on how to deal with someone like this please email me!

Leave a Reply